Please introduce yourself and provide some background information.
I have written three books on writing: The first is Wired Style, the second is Sin and Syntax, and the third is Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch. The latter is intended as a romp through the history of language and, in particular, English. It is filled with ideas to play with in your writing. Sin and Syntax is a subversive guide to grammar and good writing and contains “catechisms”—quirky grammar quizzes and writing prompts. The books have gotten me dubbed “Marion the Librarian on a Harley, or E. B. White on acid.” That works.
What is so interesting about language/grammar to you? What about it inspired you to dedicate your studies and career on topics related to language/linguistics?
I TRIED TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION IN THE INTRODUCTIONTO MY BOOK “VEX, HEX, SMASH, SMOOCH”:
I was born in Hawai‘I, on the island of O‘ahu, in a village surrounded by sugar-cane fields. In the hours of childhood that I spent on the beach and playing with my ragged group of friends, I spoke “Pidgin,” what we called our creole, which grabbed English, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, and even Portuguese words and strung them along filaments that owed as much to Polynesian syntax as to European. But my East Coast–educated parents insisted on proper English inside the house. You could say that I grew up bilingual. I learned to write term papers in the Standard English my teachers demanded, but out of school we could sit all day on the seawall “talkin’ story” with garrulous surfers, laconic fisherman, and aunties who enlivened their tales with guttural sounds and fluid gestures.
In Pidgin, the words themselves are but part of communication. Sentences pour forth in percussive bursts, and all meaning, all feeling, is expressed through sound and rhythm. Somehow, this made the jokes I heard in Pidgin funnier, the stories more evocative. And yet this was an underground language, not permissible on the phone or in the classroom. I sensed it was illegitimate, even embarrassing, especially as I set off for college on the East Coast.
Then, one day everything changed. I was talking with an English professor in his office in Princeton’s Gothic McCosh Hall. You could practically see the ivy crawling up the leaded windowpanes. I challenged him, asking why we didn’t talk about the sounds in T. S. Eliot’s poetry. He challenged me back, pulling a musty volume of Keats off the bookshelf, reading me an ode, and asking me to describe the sound. I did, somewhat sheepishly, then confessed my fluency in Pidgin, [which] relies on sound. He asked to hear some, and I recited my favorite line from “Little Lei Puahi and the Wild Pua’a,” a ribald version of “Little Red Riding Hood” featuring a nubile girl from the country and a wild pig. The line is muttered by the pig (well, the wild Pua‘a) when he first sees the nubile girl: “Eh, who’s dis porky little wahine walkin’ down da pat’?” To my surprise, my professor, an editor of the august Norton Anthology of English Literature, loved the story, and Pidgin. In that moment, I saw that that the academy can meet the street, and that great writing is about a lot more than erudition.
That moment launched my lifelong quest as a writer and editor to dig ever deeper into the roots of English and the secrets of literary style.
You are a blog writer amongst other things. How do you think blogging has changed language? How we get news? How we use language?
WELL, MOST ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION PUTS A PREMIUM ON THE SHORT, THE WITTY, THE PITHY, THE PUNCHY. THIS IS A GOOD THING. SOME OF THE BEST ENGLISH TEACHERS OR EDITORS TRY TO IMPRESS UPON THEIR WARDS THE IMPORTANCE OF BREVITY, OFTEN WITHOUT SUCCESS. BUT EMAIL, TWITTER, TEXTING HAVE DONE IT. HAS BLOGGING CHANGED LANGUAGE, THOUGH? MAYBE IT, TOO, ENCOURAGES US TO GET TO OUR POINT QUICKLY AND TO WRITE MORE DIRECTLY FOR AN AUDIENCE. YOU NEED YOUR BLOG TO BE STICKY, SO THAT IDEA OF SPEAKING TO AN AUDIENCE IS ENHANCED, WHICH IS A GOOD THING.
BUT MOSTLY, I THINK, BLOGS HAVE DEGRADED THE ART OF LETTERS. THERE IS PRESSURE TO POST REGULARLY, EVEN IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING IMPORTANT TO SAY. AND FEW BLOGGERS HAVE EDITORS AND COPY EDITORS, WHICH IS A REAL SHAME. WRITING IS IMPROVED BY REWRITING. THE BEST WRITERS—THE SMART ONES—LEARN A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT FROM EDITORS AND GET BETTER AND BETTER AT THE CRAFT. COPY EDITORS RID TEXT OF ERRORS, CLICHES, FLABBY LANGUAGE. THEY ARE A GIFT. BUT MOST BLOGGERS DO WITHOUT THEM. WE ALL SUFFER AS A RESULT.
AS FAR AS HOW WE GET NEWS, I’M A JOURNALIST, WITH A DEEP APPRECIATION FOR HOW HARD IT IS TO GET THINGS RIGHT, HOW MUCH REPORTING IT TAKES TO BE TRULY ACCURATE AND INSIGHTFUL. AND HOW EASY IT IS TO BE SNOOKERED, TO LEAVE GAPING HOLES. MOST BLOGS ARE OPINION, NOT JOURNALISM. I STILL BELIEVE THE BEST NEWS COMES FROM NEWS ORGANIZATIONS WITH TESTED REPORTERS AND EDITORS, WITH HIGH ETHICAL STANDARDS, WITH PROCEDURES THAT ENSURE THAT STORIES ARE ACCURATE. I RUE THE LOSS OF OLD-SCHOOL NEWSPAPERS.
What do you think is your unique contribution to the English language?
I LIKE TO THINK THAT MY ENTHUSIASM FOR LANGUAGE, MY CURIOSITY, AND MY WILLINGNESS TO HAVE FUN WITH WORDS HELPS MY READERS LOOSEN UP A BIT WHEN IT COMES TO THEIR OWN WRITING. HELPS THEM FEEL THAT THEY CAN STUDY AND UNDERSTAND AND EMBRACE GRAMMAR AND SYNTAX WITHUT BEING A PRUDE OR A STICK IN THE MUD. I HOPE I ENCOURAGE FOLKS TO “PLAY IN THE LANGUAGE SANDBOX”—TO SEE LANGAUGE AS SOMETHING WACKY AND HILARIOUS AND UNPREDICATABLE. AND AVAILABLE TO ALL OF US, NOT JUST TO PARENTS/TEACHERS/ /PROFESSIONAL WRITERS/AUTHORITIES. AND I HOPE THAT I GIVE WRITERS SOME TOOLS SO THAT THEY CAN BECOME MORE EXACT IN THEIR USE OF WORDS AND MORE POETIC IN THEIR SENTENCES.
What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment in the world of language/grammar/blogging?
A WAY OF APPROACHING LANGUAGE THAT IS A BOTH IRREVERENT AND SOPHISTICATED. A SYSTEMATIC APPROACH TO LEARNING GRAMMAR IN THE CONTEXT OF GOOD WRITING.
I COULD SAY THAT MY BOOKS ARE MY GREATEST CONTRIBUTION, BUT SO ARE MY NY TIMES COLUMNS, AND SO IS MY WEB SITE (WITH ALL SORTS OF TIPS, ENCOURAGEMENT, WRITING PROMPTS, AND PLACES TO BE HONEST ABOUT THE WRITING LIFE). I COULD ALSO SAY THE LESSON PLANS THAT I’VE DEVELOPED FOR TEACHERS, SO THAT THE WAY WRITING AND GRAMMAR ARE TAUGHT ARE MUCH MORE ACCESSIBLE AND EFFECTIVE.
Why should anyone be more interested in linguistics/grammar/language?
I’M NOT SURE EVERYONE NEEDS TO STUDY LINGUISTICS. YOU HAVE TO HAVE AN ACADEMIC BENT FOR THAT. BUT IT IS FASCINATING, AND A LITTLE OF IT PUTS A LOT OF THINGS INTO PERSPECTIVE.
LIKEWISE GRAMMAR. WE NEED TO KNOW A LITTLE OF IT. WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND THAT CERTAIN THINGS AID CLARITY AND POETRY IN SENTENCES. BUT A LOT OF “GRAMMAR” IS SILLY. GRAMMAR IS NOT THE POINT, REALLY. CLEAR WRITING AND ELOQUENT SPEAKING ARE.
IT’S MUCH MORE IMPORTANT TO READ, AND TO PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU LOVE IN LITERATURE, TO THINK ABOUT HOW A WRITER MAKES YOU WANT TO KEEP TURNING THE PAGE—NOT JUST THROUGH PLOT AND SUSPENSE, BUT THROUGH SPARKLING WORDS, THE TURN OF A PHRASE.
WE ALL HAVE AN URGE TO COMMUNICATE, TO FIND A WAY TO PUT OUR INCHOATE THOUGHTS INTO WORDS, TO EXPRESS OUR INNERMOST FEELINGS. YET MOST OF US FEEL THAT WE FALL SHORT. BY TAKING AN INTEREST IN LANGUAGE IN THE BROADEST SENSE WE FIND A WAY TO OUR SOULS, WE FIND A WAY TO BE MORE HUMAN. (OF COURSE, THE NEFARIOUS AMONG US FIND A WAY TO BE MORE PERSUASIVE, MORE MANIPULATIVE, AND MORE CRUEL WITH WORDS, BUT I’M AN OPTIMIST AND THINK MOST OF US WANT TO COMMUNICATE IN POSITIVE WAYS.)
If you could change the way people speak or write what would you suggest?
I ENDORSE WILLIAM ZINSSER’S “FOUR ARTICLES OF FAITH”: CLARITY, SIMPLICITY, BREVITY, AND HUMANITY. BUT I HAVE MY OWN PRINCIPLES: Relish every word.
Aim deep, but be simple.
Find the right pitch.
What are the three most critical errors made most often?
1) FLACCID VERBS.
2) REDUNDANCY. ESPECIALLY USING TWO WORDS WHEN ONE WOULD DO.
3) THE WOBBLY NARRATOR—A WRITER WHO SWITCHES INDISCRIMINATELY FROM “I” TO “YOU” TO “ONE.” THIS IS THE SIGN OF A NOVICE, SOMEONE WHO HASN’T FIGURED OUT HIS OR HER ROLE IN THE STORY, AND HASN’T GRASPED THAT EVERY PIECE OF WRITING IS A CONVERSATION BETWEEN A WRITER AND A READER.
WELL, I’VE WRITTEN THREE VERY LONG BOOKS AND I HAVE A WEB SITE WITH ALL SORTS OF TIPS AND RESOURCES. SO I WOULD ENCOURAGE YOUR READERS TO FIND THE BOOKS OR THE SITE AND EXPLORE.
BUT PART OF WHAT IS MISSING WHEN WE FOCUS ON GRAMMAR AND LINGUISTICS IS THE IDEA OF *STYLE*. GRAMMAR AND LINGUISTICS DON’T TAKE YOU VERY FAR. THEY MAY HELP CLARITY AND SIMPLICITY AND BREVITY. BUT ALL WRITERS, AND CERTAINLY NOT JUST POETS, NEED TO PLAY AROUND WITH POETIC DEVICES—SOUND AND IMAGERY AND RHYTHM AND METAPHOR. WE NEED TO EXPERIMENT IN OUR SENTENCES, WATCHING WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE BEEF UP OUR VERBS, WHEN WE TRIM OUR PREPOSITIONAL PHRASES, WHEN WE WRITE LONG AND THEN WHEN WE TURN AROUND AND WRITE SHORT.
YOU CAN’T BE A GOOD WRITER WITHOUT BEING A GOOD READER. AND YOU CAN’T BE A GOOD WRITER WITHOUT THE PATIENCE AND PERSEVERANCE TO WORK PRETTY HARD AT THE CRAFT.